When Your Pet Dies
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When Your Pet Dies

Pets give us so much joy in their short lives. But, too soon, it's time to say good-bye. We asked experts for advice on how to cope.

In a perfect world your pet -- like all your loved ones -- would live a long, rich life and then die peacefully in its sleep. "People hope that Fluffy is just going to close her eyes one night and float off with the angels," says Susan Phillips Cohen, director of counseling at the Animal Medical Center, in New York City. "Unfortunately, most of the time it doesn't go that way." In reality, your dog could get hit by a car or your cat could have a heart attack. Most likely of all, your pet will go into an age-related decline and you'll be faced with the difficult decision of whether to put it to sleep.

"The fact is that most pets only live about 10 to 15 years," says psychologist Stephanie LaFarge, PhD, senior director in animal health services for the ASPCA. You can't avoid the sadness of losing a beloved companion, but being prepared for it in advance will ensure a smoother and less-painful transition for you and your kids -- and, most of all, for your pet.

Time to Euthanize?

Whether to put an ailing animal to sleep is probably the hardest decision that any pet owner will have to make. "There's never an exact right time, unfortunately," says Dr. LaFarge. "You are always going to worry that it's too soon or too late." Consider the pros and cons carefully, she advises, but give yourself a break, since there is no perfect answer.

"Euthanasia takes a lot of courage," says veterinarian Kristen Nelson, author of Coated with Fur: A Vet's Life. To help you decide what's best for your pet, ask your vet how you can tell if the animal is suffering. Some signs of severe distress are as obvious as panting or as subtle as an elevated heart rate. In most cases, experts say, euthanasia is the most peaceful way for your pet to die. "You want to be able to look back and say, ?I did right by this animal in the end,'" says Nelson.

Unexpected Death

If your pet dies at home or gets hit by a car, your first move should be to take a deep breath and calm down. Unless the animal died of rabies, its body isn't going to be toxic or harmful to you in any way. Honor your relationship by covering the body with a favorite blanket and take time to say good-bye.

Have an advance plan for what to do with your pet's remains in this sort of situation so you don't have to do your research when you're in shock. Many people either arrange for cremation through their vet's office or contact a pet crematorium or cemetery directly. Alternatively, you can call 311, the bureau of sanitation or animal control for details on pickup. If you want to bury your pet in your backyard, check to see that it's legal (in some places it isn't) and be sure to dig a grave that's at least four feet deep, says Nelson. "I've seen some kids traumatized because another dog came and dug up their pet."

Dealing with Death As a Family

Keep your children in the loop. "Some parents, to spare their kids the pain, take the pet to the veterinarian to be euthanized without telling them," says Nelson. "Big mistake. The children feel betrayed, as though they never had the chance to say good-bye." And whatever you do, don't lie. Realize that if you invent a story about the pet running away or going to some mythical "farm," you aren't really protecting the child -- you're protecting yourself from your child's grief. The loss of a pet is a good opportunity to show your kids that when bad or sad things happen, the family sticks together. With young children it's important to choose your words wisely, especially when it comes to euthanasia, says Colleen Pelar, a certified dog trainer and author of Living with Kids and Dogs...Without Losing Your Mind. Euphemisms can backfire. "Children are very literal and can find it scary to hear that Fritz was ?put to sleep,'" she explains. "It opens up unsettling images of naps that don't end." Instead, explain that the pet was dying and the vet gave him something to make him more comfortable.

It's Good to Grieve

"Most people are utterly unprepared for how intense their sadness is when they lose a pet," says Dr. LaFarge. And you may also feel embarrassed about grieving too much in public, since it's "only" a pet. "Perfectly normal pet owners say, 'I feel as though I've lost my best friend,'" Dr. LaFarge says. "But when you think about it, nothing is as much a part of your physical space as your animal is."

Take care of yourself and allow yourself time to grieve. If you're having a hard time, a pet-loss support group can help a lot. Ask your vet or state veterinary medical association for referrals. The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement offers online chatrooms guided by trained counselors at aplb.org, and the ASPCA has a pet-loss hotline, 877-474-3310. Every day should be a little better. But if, after five days, you're still too blue to function, see your doctor -- it's possible that your normal grief could have triggered a clinical depression.

Celebrate Your Pet

When a companion animal dies, the first question many people will ask is, "Are you going to get another one?" Experts agree that you shouldn't do it right away. It may feel good at first to have a new pet, but you won't have the mental energy to bond when you're still grieving the last one.

Instead, celebrate the life of the pet you've just lost. Have a ceremony for the burial or for scattering your pet's ashes and if you have kids get them involved in planning it. Put his picture up on Facebook. Assemble a photo album. In the end, remember that death is part of life, says Dr. LaFarge. "A good death can be a happy ending."

"I'm Sorry for Your Loss"

If you haven't personally lost a pet, it can be hard to know how to comfort a friend in mourning. Two nice gestures: Send a sympathy card and ask your friend to share her favorite memory of the animal. Remember that she may be grieving for longer than you'd expect. Check in with her from time to time to see how she's holding up. Don't ignore the topic altogether (your friend probably is thinking of little else) and don't ask when she's getting a new pet or say anything else that may sound as though you're minimizing the significance of her loss. For most people, the death of a beloved animal feels more like losing a dear friend or a family member -- not "just a pet."